Trevor Paglan, The Other Night Sky
Suppose you wanted to build your own drone—well, hold on a minute—why do you want to build your own drone?
But suppose you just wanted to find out some of the latest info on the US government's top secret drone projects. Don't even ask me why, it should be obvious. You'd want to do like artist Trevor Paglen , and travel to remote testing locations to snap photographs of strange shapes taking off from military bases, along with the planespotters. Either that, or travel to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and now Somalia with a good pair of binoculars.
And then if you want a little bit a speculation about drones, you pick up the paranoid defense blogging of Danger Room or the design-fiction of sousveillance and cyborg specialists like Tim Maly . And then you—
Okay. I thought it was clear, but if you want me to spell it out for you, I will. You are obsessed with drones. We all are. We live in a drone culture, just as we once lived in a car culture. The Northrop-Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is your '55 Chevorlet. You just might not know it yet.
I have thirty-five browser tabs open, and each contains a fragment of the drone-mythos. Each is a glimpse at a situation, a bird’s eye view of the terrain. So many channels, showing me the same thing: near-infinite data collection. With the help of Google, I’m drone-spotting—I'm turning a new critical perspective that I'm calling Drone Ethnography, back on itself.
All of us that use the internet are already practicing Drone Ethnography. Look at the features of drone technology: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Surveillance, Sousveillance. Networks of collected information, over land and in the sky. Now consider the “consumer” side of tech: mapping programs, location-aware pocket tech, public-sourced media databases, and the apps and algorithms by which we navigate these tools. We already study the world the way a drone sees it: from above, with a dozen unblinking eyes, recording everything with the cold indecision of algorithmic commands honed over time, affecting nothing—except, perhaps, a single, momentary touch, the momentary awareness and synchronicity of a piece of information discovered at precisely the right time. An arc connecting two points like the kiss from an air-to-surface missile. Our technological capacity for watching, recording, collecting, and archiving has never been wider, and has never been more automated. The way we look at the world—our basic ethnographic approach—is mimicking the technology of the drone.
Epistemological change in inevitable, but there is more going on here than a revolution in research tools. There is a feeling I can only describe as the presence of “The Swarm”, a fundamental aesthetic of the drone-mythos. It's an unexpected mythological evolution that has come about along with the technological evolution. There's nothing groundbreaking about myths accompanying new technology. But this mythos is different. The industrial revolution didn't see a burgeoning number of DIY textile mills. This is more along the lines of the birth of the automobile—a seemingly simple invention that not only revolutionized its particular task, but also changed society.
Bitcoin. You may have heard of it: a so-called virtual peer-to-peer currency system. It’s been billed alternately as the savior of the world from the hands of the banking system, the scourge of world governments, a monumental waste of energy resources, a privacy nightmare, and just plain dumb. But what the hell is it? Nobody knows. Let’s get started.
You have to admit there’s something exciting about a virtual currency system, but at the same time, that something just might be hype. There’s something vaguely “of Anonymous” to the whole deal—it might be revolutionary, but also could be a joke. It could be teenagers pretending they’re anarchist comic book heroes. The trouble is, it’s tough to tell for sure.
And yet, this is what we were promised from cyberspace, wasn’t it? This is the reality of Neuromancer and Snowcrash. Virtual currencies to spend in virtual shadow worlds, run by cryptopunks, comprising off-the-grid hacker economies. If you have a single sci-fi bone in your body, you are irresistibly turned-on by the idea of a fluctuating exchange rate between Second Life’s Liden Dollars and Bitcoin. Watching the numbers rise and fall on www.bitcoincharts.com is better than a Matrix screensaver, because it is somehow, possibly, maybe, happening in real life. This is the sort of radical stuff that is The Future we fantasized about, rather than oil shortages and housing surpluses.
Virtual technologies are becoming decidedly real. From cell phone augmented reality, to the broad range of Kinect motion-sensor hacks, to location-aware tech, it’s hard to tell what is virtual, what is real, and what is just made up. The virtual is real... but still, a different sort of real. As Gilles Deleuze wrote, “The virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual.” We have more reality than ever, only some of it is virtual reality, and other elements are actual reality.
“Extreme virtual reality” seems to describe Bitcoin. Setting aside the functional import of a virtual currency for a moment, Bitcoin is quite real, and impressively so. The value of all Bitcoins in existence is around 105 million USD. Over 24.5 million USD in transactions take place every 24 hours. (My stats are as of June 13, 2011. For real-time statistics of all kinds, see the excellent site http://bitcoinwatch.com.) It is difficult to estimate the total computing power of the distributed Bitcoin network, but some vague guesses place it greater than the power of the world’s top 500 supercomputers... combined. This virtual reality might not mean a thing to most of us in our daily life of tweets and emails, blogs and new media. But it certainly is not nothing...
I personally believe in facts, rather than truth. Facts are beholden to their context, which is a terrain of other facts. There is no singular truth, but there is a preponderance of facts mapped and understood in context. Continuing to add these constituent facts into our reality is much more important than attempting to label a single, authentic reality.
So as that relates to technological surveillance, it is important to incorporate the many things that the US government is doing, in that regard, into our worldview as fact. These are not potentials, to be held up and weighed against a background of "ethical, legal action", or "just war", or any other proclaimed field on which we can argue back and forth, "is X really torture or not?" While these debates of objective truth spiral around the front pages of the newspaper, the actions continue to occur, as facts. That is what is important, in my opinion.
Per this particular comment, I just want to add something about the parallel to paper-printing technology. Again, it is a conceptual issue of what is a "machine. The idea of a "desktop printer", or a "Print-On-Demand" printer, is similar to that of a "3D Printer". It in itself is a consumer unit, that doesn't really address the technology inside. A desktop color laser printer has basically the same quality print engine as an in-line "book machine". What defines the ability to make a book is the right paper, the pre-press know-how, and in-line bindery functions. If someone knows InDesign and is willing to cut and bind a book by hand, they could indeed make a professional-quality book with a $300 desktop printer. It is because we, as both users and consumers, privilege the all-in-one process of the machine (despite the fact that book-machines aren't magic and are difficult to use with consistent quality) that we think of certain machine set-ups as having this singular ability, when actually the technology is a much wider field.
So when we say that consumers will always get better quality or speed or value by going to a "professional", weren't not really talking about the operator, the owner, or the technology itself, but we're talking about access to certain technologies, and the skills to use them all together. No offense to either of the commenters here, whose skills and experience are no doubt well-earned; but I think that while these skills will still be real and crucial, they will be, in the near future, distributed outside of "professional" industry. I'm saying this from my particular experience in paper printing. There is still a necessary investment in skill and equipment, but it is leaving the "industry". Coffee shops are getting bookmaking machines. Offices are getting bindery equipment. Individuals are learning to cloth-bind books, for no other reason than they want to do so. Perhaps this is a feature of the changing nature of "professionalism" in industry, or because of the cheapening of technology. But either way, it's interesting to watch.